Discovering geography, from Australia to California

Wide-eyed with fascination and a Pacific Ocean away from her home in Australia, 19-year-old Adrian Youhanna spends her first semester at Pierce College sitting in the front row of her geography class. 

Her professor, Gail Hobbs, lectures about a new computer software called geography information system, which combines environmental and human data. 

Hobbs scans the rows of students in front of her and notices the teen leaning into her desk, drinking in the information. Content with finding a needle in the haystack, Hobbs pulls Youhanna aside to have a conversation about the student’s potential. 

Youhanna’s introduction to higher education began with a rejection letter from California  State University, Northridge (CSUN). Now with the ball in her court, Youhanna rejected her original major of psychology to explore her expanding enthusiasm with the physical, cultural and cartography field of study that is geography. 

“I was so fortunate that Northridge did not accept me,” Youhanna said on Zoom. “I would not have met my mentor who literally changed my life.” 

Hungry for more, Youhanna bustled to Admissions and Records to change her major that same afternoon. Moments later, she returned to show her professor the confirmation slip. Hobbs’ jaw dropped. 

After earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geography at CSUN, Youhanna began teaching as an adjunct at Pierce and other colleges in 2001 for about eight years. 

And Hobbs continued to mentor her. Despite the new degrees under her belt, Youhanna remained a student. 

The campus Youhanna once paid out-of-state tuition to was now her workplace, yet memories of her early 20s remained as if the grounds were a time capsule. 

She strolled by the same classroom where Hobbs transformed her life. She could vividly see and hear the words of encouragement her mentor earnestly spoke to her at 19. 

Dazed, Youhanna realized this isn’t a flashback but an event occurring at that moment. Hobbs is speaking to a student about their potential in geography.

“I thought I was so special. She pulled me out of class and had this conversation with me,” Youhanna said. “She gave them the same pitch she gave me, and I thought ‘Son of a gun. She’s throwing the fish line out and trying to reel the students in.’” 

Then in 2009, Youhanna’s life changed again. A full-time teaching gig for geography opened at Pierce, and she was hired. But this time, her mentor would no longer be available to give tender yet stern advice on how to become an impactful educator because the position was a result of Hobbs’ death from cancer. She was 62. 

While grieving the trailblazer, whose significance she felt throughout her entire career in academia, Youhanna resolved to continue Hobbs’ legacy of mentoring the future of geography. 

Later, when Youhanna was easing out of her position as Anthropological and Geographical Sciences Department Chair at Pierce, she mentored the current chair, Erin Hayes. 

On Zoom, Hayes said she’s touched by Youhanna and Hobbs’ relationship. 

“She has a strong sense of love and loyalty to those people who’ve helped her along. She sees herself as a successor to those people,” Hayes said. “For her, I would imagine it’s both fulfilling and hard because she’s lost a lot of people along the way.” 

When dealing with department and teaching hardships, Youhanna relies on WWGD: What Would Gail Do? While Youhanna’s default response would be to curse, she instead takes a deep breath like Hobbs would have. 

Hobbs favored the future of geography and joined on-campus committees to promote the department. So, Youhanna did the same. 

Angela Belden, a professor of psychology statistics, works closely with Youhanna. Both held seats in the Academic Senate and launched Guided Pathways as coordinators. 

Like Youhanna, Belden pursued higher education with community college first. Belden said on Zoom that Youhanna’s story as a student inspired by her professors motivated the pair to create a similar environment. 

“She’s got institutional memory from a student perspective, institutional memory from a staff person’s perspective and now institutional memory as a faculty,” Belden said. “She’s got diverse experiences all centered around Pierce College.”

From time to time, former students of Youhanna mail her thank you letters for introducing them to geography, which led to their internships and careers. 

“It’s times like that I go, Gail must be looking and going, ‘Alright, good job,’” Youhanna said.